Pop-Ups Strong on Buzz, Weak on Business

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Business at Revolución Coffee + Juice has been slow. Photo by Page Graham.

Question: How do you organize a successful holiday pop-up shop downtown? Answer: Give away lots of free beer and wine.

Unfortunately, what draws a crowd of appreciative and thirsty Millennials doesn't necessarily make for a very great business model. A lot of entrepreneurs would like to figure out how to win more than attention to their startups. Attracting revenue is a matter of survival.

In a Tuesday brown bag lunch forum co-hosted by the Center City Development and Operations Department (CCDO) and Café Commerce, the key takeaway was the need to move beyond social media mojo and into the realm of cash flow.

The forum, which drew a standing-room only audience, was hosted by Peter French, Café Commerce president, and Lori Houston, CCDO director. Panel participants included vendors Priscilla Martinez, owner of Joyarte Jewelry, and Manny Carral, owner of Revolución Coffee + Juice.

It quickly became apparent that one challenge is making a small business work along the Houston and Commerce street corridors. Both Martinez and Carral indicated they would think twice about setting up shop full-time in the heart of the downtown commercial district.

The number of attendees at the meeting indicates a keen interest in revitalizing downtown. Photo by Page Graham.

The number of attendees at the meeting indicates a keen interest in revitalizing downtown. Photo by Page Graham.

So, what are the issues facing potential individual retail vendors?

Is it the Chicken or the Egg?

As Houston pointed out, there still are very few residents downtown. The goal is to build enough apartment units to reach critical mass and thus enable retail to survive. Urban dwellers, however, want to see retail amenities before they move into the city center. It's a classic conundrum.

Downtown San Antonio needs more buildings repurposed as apartments like these in order to thrive. Photo by Page Graham.

Downtown San Antonio needs more underutilized buildings converted to apartments to thrive. Photo by Page Graham.

San Antonio's current model of urban core development is occurring on "islands" such as the Broadway Corridor/Pearl complex and the Southtown/Blue Star area. Large, vacant gaps exist in between.

People are attracted to the growing wealth of attractions in each community: apartment complexes, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and boutiques, and a growing sense of walkability and pedestrian/cycling flow that enlivens the public spaces. In between is downtown, but there is no need to go downtown if one doesn't want to.

Perhaps this point will become moot as development on Broadway continues to edge southward and River North along Broadway and around the Tobin Center. Still, with no single thoroughfare beckoning residents with comfortable public transportation alternatives, sidewalks and bike lanes, San Antonio's center city is essentially two distinct neighborhoods: north and south.

Too Little Time, Very Little Visibility

Another issue that surfaced at Cafe Commerce: vendors are given very short windows of opportunity in the otherwise vacant storefronts. Joyarte was only open for three days, Purse and Clutch will be there for one week, and the AME Collaborative on Travis Street is closing this Saturday. This gives vendors too little time to build awareness, or give customers the opportunity to get out and see them.

Can you see the pop-up shops? Old signage confuses potential customers. Photo by Page Graham.

Can you see the pop-up shops? Old signage confuses potential customers. Photo by Page Graham.

Lack of signage is another issue. Each shop features a 18" x 24" sign that says "OPEN," but that's inadequate. There was a large whiteboard in front of the 231 E. Houston St. location, but it was not professionally done and difficult to read. The lack of temporary banners or other signage is a problem. In some instances, signs advertising failed businesses, such as the long-defunct Cafe Punta de Cielo, are ill-advised reminders that confuse passersby.

Restaurant parking valets pose a different kind of challenge. How can people see Joyarte's enticing display if three valets block the view? When asked, they were disinclined to move. Who knows what their agreement with the City is to set up shop on the sidewalk...or perhaps they can just get away with it?

Can you see the Pop-Up Shop in this photo? Photo by Page Graham.

Can you see the Pop-Up Shop in this photo? Photo by Page Graham.

Marketing support seems weak. Although there is an agency assigned to publicize the Pop-Ups, vendors are having more success with their own social media efforts. Social media mobilizes loyalists; it brings in few newcomers.

Busy on the street, not in the shops, is another symptom. Houston Street was packed Saturday night with people that came to see the Lion King at the Majestic, dining at Bohanan's and the Palm, and heading to the Tobin Center. Unfortunately, there was little ancillary traffic in the pop-up shops. Making the pop-ups part of the downtown experience is the challenge next year, if not immediately.

It's the Parking, Stupid!

In a previous article, then-District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal suggested change was afoot to address downtown parking and traffic flow. That's simply not happening. For example, it cost $8 to park in the city-owned St. Mary's St. garage for a little over two hours to cover the event at Cafe Commerce. The garage was far from full, indicating there is a poor balance between supply and demand.

Granted, there is the Downtown Tuesday initiative, where parking is free on the streets and in city-owned garages after 6 p.m. However, the Houston Street garage is not free when there is a show at the Majestic Theater. Parking is also full price on Saturdays, when the Pop-Ups are in operation.

In an attempt to be progressive, the city recently announced a new smartphone app to help locate parking spaces. Ironically, using handheld devices while driving will be illegal starting Jan. 1. In any case, it's a Band-Aid covering up a broader issue.

Do Landlords Really Care?

Carral was once eager to set up a downtown location for Revolución (he currently operates a cafe in Alamo Heights). He tried twice to rent space near the San Antonio River on Houston Street. In one instance, he said, the landlord dumped him when it seemed like Dunkin' Donuts wanted a 10-year lease. That didn't work out, and the landlord again approached Carral. However, when the landlord saw their menu, he immediately deemed it "too polarizing."

Joyarte owner Priscilla Martinez sets up her shop. Photo by Page Graham.

Joyarte owner Priscilla Martinez sets up her shop. Photo by Page Graham.

For one of the three brief days she was there, Martinez was forced to move her tables to one side so the landlord could host a luncheon. As she pointed out, it was his prerogative, but it obviously left a bad taste in her mouth. If the landlord isn't fully committed, what would it be like to sign on full-time?

Bottom line, it's a questionable business proposition for boutiques or galleries to set up shop downtown at this point. As it is, it's hard for businesses like these to survive even in towns with lots of browsing foot traffic, like Boerne or Fredericksburg.

Although the 80/20 Foundation has provided funds to Acción Texas to provide loans to those seeking to open a shop downtown...it still has to be paid back even if the business fails. As Martinez noted, she doesn't have the capital to start a retail business. And a loan is still a loan, no matter how friendly the terms.

If OPEN: Pop-Up Shops wants to thrive next year, perhaps they should set up something similar to BRICK Marketplace in the Blue Star. The storefront at 231 E. Houston St. would be an ideal location. As long as they have adequate professional signage, and no valets loitering in front of the store.

Purse & Clutch will only be in the Book Bldg. for one week. Photo by Page Graham.

Purse & Clutch (from Austin) will only be in the Book Bldg. for one week. Photo by Page Graham.

OPEN: Downtown Pop-up Shops are open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 12-9 p.m. through Dec. 30.

 *Featured/top image: Business at Revolución Coffee + Juice has been slow. Photo by Page Graham.\

Related Stories:

Downtown Holiday Markets: Anti Black Fridays

Sunday at The BRICK, Southtown’s Newest Pop-up Market

First Friday to Second Saturday: Remembering Silos, Discovering Lone Star

Pop-up San Antonio: The Art of the Movement

13 thoughts on “Pop-Ups Strong on Buzz, Weak on Business

  1. I went to OPEN 12/06 (taking the bus since it was marathon weekend). It was a quick in and out at three places and I looked in the window at the 4th. There were -0- products that interested me. I was very dissapointed since I thought it would many vendors (at least 10 in each) in several storefronts offering many different types of things. Instead I found one, one (beautifully displayed but of no interest), three (selling I wasn’t quite sure what) and one. If they changed vendors another weekend and had things I was interested in, I’d never know. No place described the products available for each vendor, no place said when they switched vendors, it was difficult enough to find any info about the event at all.
    So, my suggestions are 1. Run all vendors the entire time in larger areas 2. Be open from 10-6 on Saturday 3. List the vendors, their type of products, their locations SEVERAL times in the paper, on websites, in event calenders, etc. 4. Have clear signage outside and inside (per vendor). 5. Maybe think of a different name than “Open”, it might trigger some memory hearing about the event in locals but tourists will have no idea. 6. Have the “ambassadors” aware of the event and be able to direct people to it.

  2. imo vendors do well at The Pearl’s Farmer’s Market bc people go with the intention to buy things, its an environment with more than 1 reason to go. For people to go specifically to these store fronts with few options, sounds like an uphill battle. I wonder how these vendors would do in vacant suites at Rivercenter Mall or at a farmer’s market like The Pearl. Rarely do we find brick&mortar retailers alone, surrounded by other types of businesses. #LocationLocation

  3. It would seem that the CCDO needs to go back and take some remedial business classes. Example: Google the word “open.” The first thing that comes up is American Express and their small business program, which is branded “Open.” Not only is this unimaginative and derivative of another corporate concept, there is not a whiff of anything about San Antonio or the initiative on Houston Street. I can’t imagine who thought this was a good idea. Back to the drawing board…

  4. I was set up for 4 days at 140 E. Houston and I don’t have any complaints at all. For me I didn’t go into the situation thinking these 4 days were going to change my life and my business dramatically. I didn’t have the delusional thought that all my hopes and dreams would be answered, and as soon as my time was up, I would be rewarded with a full time shop of my very own that would sustain me and my family into retirement. The program is still just starting out, this is only year 2. My mindset going in, was that I need to take this opportunity for what it is. To me it was about the experience of operating my own shop and exposure to a different clientele. And for those 2 points, “OPEN” succeeded for me. I have been operating out of my house for a little over a year. I usually set up at local outdoor markets or with a group that I’m a part of called “SA Made by Hand Mercado” which has a monthly spot at Travis Park. I’ve tried selling online but my name just isn’t big enough, not enough people know me. At the outdoor markets I do ok, but I wanted more exposure. With the “OPEN” program my business was blasted everywhere. In the first week my shop partner (Brandy Rae Photography) and I were interviewed by 3 different local news outlets. There is no way I could have gotten that kind of media attention on my own. Those interviews alone brought people into the shop. There were multiple customers who told us they came down to the shop because they saw the interviews and wanted to see what the program was all about. They had no idea that there were so many local artists and craftsmen located in their own city. The city is doing what it can to get the word out that we have local community of very talented people. Getting these entrepreneurs and the property owners together couldn’t have been an easy task. I’m sure there were a lot of “No’s” from property owners before they got the first “Yes”. The landlords are doing us a huge favor by letting us use their store fronts for free. This isn’t something they have to do, it’s by choice. By making that choice they can set their own guidelines, and they could have been a whole lot stricter if they wanted. I have never personally set up my products and left them in a space for 2 weeks. These property owners allowed us to do that. I would have been happy to setup and take down each individual day to have this opportunity. The “OPEN” program will get bigger and better, but it’s up to us, the small business owners to give them our help and feedback. Every year this program has a chance to be better than the last. I personally hope this program continues to move forward and grow, because I plan on being a part of it every step of the way.

  5. Perhaps the merchandise sold at OPEN wasn’t for everyone, but I personally was able to purchase gifts for many people on my list. I loved being able to share with the recipients that their gifts were created by hand from artists all over San Antonio. Plus, I work downtown so it was so nice and convenient to be able to walk to all of the shops from my office! I hope to see this program back again – I think it’s going to get better and better each year.

  6. David couldn’t have said it better. The program is young and learning, as well as the business owners. For most vendors who operate from home, this was a chance for us to try something new. For me, it was something I never imagined I would be able to do at this point in my career. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity, and the immense efforts that went into making it possible. I think each store did a wonderful job in their promotions, events, and displays. Even other small downtown businesses came to support and congratulate us. My brand received more attention than I anticipated, and I am extremely satisfied with the feedback I received. To comment on a business’s potential to “fail” is an injustice to the vendor. We knew the risks when we applied, and we learned greatly from our experiences. OPEN provided the opportunity to do so. Its an accomplishment in itself to have a free space downtown to set up shop during tourist season, with guaranteed media coverage. Not only did we have customers who saw the broadcasts, we had plenty of downtowners and tourists alike. As mentioned, we had a limited time to set up, so pardon us for not busting out the flashing neon signs. The point of the program is to promote small local businesses, and get people downtown. It did just that. If given the opportunity, I would definitely work with OPEN again.

  7. I’ve lived in San Antonio my entire life and I’ve never been one to go downtown. When I found out about the OPEN shops from their Facebook page as well as from word of mouth, I knew I had to go see what all the talk was about! Once I arrived, I fell in love with every shop. You could feel the happiness radiating off the vendors and it was amazing. As a young person living in the city, I finally felt hope for downtown and San Antonio as a whole. OPEN is what we need. San Antonio needs something new, even if right now it’s only temporary. I can’t wait for next year and I have hope that every year the program will continue to grow and bring smiles to the people of San Antonio. Go SA!

  8. I don’t think the reporter understands the point of a pop up shop. His article is all over the place. He notes that the property owners give small businesses FREE rent and utilities but then bashes them by implying that they don’t care? Geez.

  9. I agree completely with the lack of siganage in the surrounding area, guiding people toward the shops. It took me about 20 minutes to find my way, but I think this is an easy fix.

    As for the shops. I have been to pop ups in Austin and Dallas, and these ranked right up there. The products being offered were excellent and most of the spaces were well decorated.

    The city can improve for sure, but overall I rant the shops this year as an 8 out of 10.

    But please, work on the signs!!

  10. My name is Alexis Quiroga and I own PAWsitively Sweet Bakery that operated a pop-up shop at 140 E. Houston St. the week after Christmas. This was our second year participating in the OPEN Program and I could not be happier with the outcome. While we agree there are some challenges – including signage, parking, and advertising – we are appreciative of the opportunity to expand our downtown customer base. Beyond sales, we made valuable connections and discovered resources that will be utilized in the coming year. The media coverage we received from all the major TV news stations was invaluable.
    We were allowed to open our pop-up shop beyond Tuesday and Saturday so we made use of the time and opened as many days as possible. We hosted Pups & Peeps social events on two occasions. We took charge of the promotion through our own avenues and attracted not only our loyal customers but ones we recently met at the downtown shop.
    It is my understanding the OPEN Program gives local small businesses an opportunity to operate a retail shop downtown. From that experience, shop owners learn about the advantages along with the challenges related to having a retail location. The reality is when a small shop opens up, they have to face those challenges alone without any help.
    I have learned much about operating a retail location from my participation and have a much greater understanding of what it involves thanks to the City of San Antonio’s Center City Development Office and the OPEN Program.
    This is only the second year and I am hopeful the program will continue to prosper in the years to come.

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